I would like to share here what I believe is the best method to build up to unsupported pull-ups.
Some people advise to just go for unsupported from the start, trying as hard as possible to pull up, or doing negative. I dont think it is a good idea (…and I have tried it…). Obviously, this depends on your weight / strength ratio, and if you are nearly there this might be OK. However, if you have a long way to go then you might be setting yourself up for injury. It is less in the big pulling muscles – they’ll pick up under this shock therapy – but in the smaller muscles and the tendons who can’t handle that much load so quickly. I would argue that for many people, especially if overweight, grip strength will be an issue, and those muscles are at risk of being injured.
In my view the best way to go about it is as weightlifters do on any lift: progressive overload, ie starting small, and increasing by small and controlled amounts on every step. Sort of like those pull-up machines do where you put your knees on a pad that is counterbalanced by a weight – unfortunately those dont carry over to real pull-ups though because you are not really hanging there but you are really kneeling on a pad.
So what is the solution? In my view: heavy duty elastic bands. Not those flimsy one’s used in Pilates, but the heavy circular one’s that powerlifter sometimes use in training. And which strength to go for? Depends on you of course. You can get a set, but they are rather expensive (about £20 for one) so you might want to choose the one you need. The one I am using is the green one in the picture on the right. It is rated 41′ length, and 50-120lbs resistance. In practice it provides between 20-30kg support the way I am using it, which makes sense at my bodyweight of about 100kg. I am not endorsing any particular brand by the way – those are simply the one’s I am using (and I haven’t found too many different options in any way).
So the band provides the needed support, but what about progressive overload? Easy – wear some weights! Not kidding – this might sound silly, but it is difficult to control the support by moving the attachment point of the band – you usually don’t have too many choices where to put it, and on the bar is generally a good idea in any case.
What I am doing, is a put on a weight belt, and I clip on either barbell discs or kettlebells – +2.5kg every other day (with one day rest), just as I would do on squats. You can of choose your own increments – but keeping the rest day is probably a good idea. Doing this you will be up to unsupported pull-ups in no time!
A couple of tweaks: Firstly, what to do if you dont have access to a weight belt and/or weights? If you have weights but no belt – well, any belt might do, or even a bit of climbing rope. Otherwise, use a backpack! And what if you dont have weights? Use stones, water bottles, anything that is heavy. Just use scales to make sure you get approximately consistent increases in weight at every step.
At one point your progress might be such that you put quite a lot of weight on your back, or between your legs, and that might become uncomfortable. The solution here is simple: either change the band, or move the attachment point lower. In order to achieve the latter, I am using some a loop of a thin climbing rope, and a carabiner, the reason being that I am worried that the rope will damage the elastic if I attach it directly.
In order to make the transition smooth it is important to understand the difference in support the band provides at the different lengths’. The way I did it was to simply put in dumbbells of different weights to find out at which weight the band would just extend to the floor.
UPDATE: it took me only a few months, but now I finally had the much needed stroke of genius: if you want to do band and weighted at the same time, often the easiest way is to clip the additional weights not to your body (which can hurt your private parts, and makes you look funny) but to the elastic…